Dual language teacher Miriam Hernandez reads to her students in Spanish.
Esparza Elementary School teacher Miriam Hernandez reads to her dual language students in Spanish in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s largest school districts expanded their summer school offerings this year with robust programs like sports, robotics, and access to counselors.

District officials know this is what it will take to entice students back into schools and, therefore, help them close any learning gaps that may have been created by months of virtual instruction. To get teachers and staff on board, many school districts also increased pay for the summer.

For some, it will look as if school never let out for the summer after a strange school year. The pandemic forced schools to close their doors to students after spring break last year, and students never fully returned to classrooms this school year, despite leaders assuring families that campuses were a safe space where COVID-19 spread minimally. The months of virtual instruction took a toll on students, academically and emotionally.

Now, with staff members and students getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and millions in federal relief funds headed to school districts, in-person summer school has become part of the answer to pandemic learning loss.

In a typical school year, school districts generally reserve summer school for students who are failing or need to earn additional course credit to graduate, but this isn’t a typical school year. Summer school is open to almost any student who wants to attend, as long as campuses have enough staff to teach them.

About 40% of San Antonio Independent School District students are projected to attend summer school this year, said Becky Landa, senior executive director for educational technology and extended learning. Those 20,000 students will return to school July 19 for 10 days of accelerated instruction and extracurricular activities. Except for six that will be closed for repairs, every SAISD campus is offering summer jump-start programs. The six closed campuses will hold summer school at other sites.

“This program is to begin the school year for kids, and each and every one of the schools’ programs is designed to have both academics and enrichment,” Landa said. “We’re having a lot of emphasis in basically welcoming our students back and making sure that they are set up for success.”

In Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest district with more than 100,000 students, almost twice as many students have enrolled in summer school than in years prior to the pandemic, said Jessica Palomares, assistant superintendent for elementary administration. About 10,000 elementary students are registered, the largest population of students in the district. NISD’s summer school starts June 9 and runs through July 23, with several breaks in between.

Of the roughly 60,400 students enrolled in North East ISD this year, more than 9,000 students have signed up to attend either the June remediation program or the July jump-start or acceleration program, said Jennifer Gutierrez, executive director for elementary curriculum and instruction. The June program begins Monday at certain campuses.

Districts relied more on teachers and campus leaders this year to identify which students needed to attend summer school, sometimes using parent-teacher conferences to urge parents to send their children back to school in person. Some parents have been reluctant to send their students back to school in person because of concerns about COVID-19.

The summer school days will mirror regular school days – another pandemic-related change – with students having the opportunity to take “enrichment” or “discovery” classes, such as fine arts or yoga, in addition to their academics. The classes differ depending on the district and campus.

Schools also developed specific programs for special education students and English language learners to prepare them for the next grade level. Data shows those students need the most support in recovering from missed learning opportunities, Gutierrez said.

“We really want to make sure that we’re supporting the needs of all of our students,” she said. “We are a diverse district with many needs, and our curriculum staff took the time to design those lessons intentionally to really support the needs of our students across the district and make sure that they’re really learning and mastering those essential skills that they’re going to need but in a fun, engaging way.”

All three districts start their summer programs with remediation, or teaching students skills and concepts they may have missed during the school year. SAISD’s last day of school is June 17, so students are already doing that work, Landa said. The district will close for four weeks after the last day to deep clean campuses before students return in July for a jump-start program, which is also called an “acceleration” program because it prepares students for the next grade level.

Research has shown that teaching students grade-level material while building up the skills they lack as they need them – or acceleration – is more effective at helping students catch up than remediation, or teaching students material below their grade level before moving onto the next. A report by TNTP, a teacher nonprofit group, and Zearn, a nonprofit digital learning platform, found that students finish 27% more grade-level work through acceleration methods than remediation.

To lure teachers and other staff, school districts increased their summer pay rates. NEISD teachers will earn $15 more per hour this summer, and NISD staff will make about $10 more per hour. SAISD staff will earn the regular pay rates they earn during the school year instead of a summer work rate.

“We wanted to make sure that we compensate them for the caliber of their skills and for a challenging year,” Gutierrez said of teachers and staff. “They’re continuing to commit and dedicate all of their energy to our students.”

Additionally, students will have access to mental health services while in summer school. Landa said SAISD has not offered wraparound services like counselors in the summer before but that the district knows students need that help right now to succeed academically.

“It’s a real commitment to our community to be able to say, ‘we’re there for you, we’re here, and we want to make sure that our kids have a really strong start to the year,'” she said.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.